Drawing back to wellness with art therapy
Art therapy can heal emotional issues and help guide you towards a gentle yet powerful healing. Here, we take a look at the research that now supports it.
“Art can permeate the very deepest part of us where no words exist.” ~ Eileen Miller
Ever found yourself doodling away at a boring meeting or during a difficult phone conversation, only to notice an hour has flown and your doodles have kept you surprisingly sane? Have you ever coloured in a beautiful picture or spontaneously drawn something because it feels good? It turns out drawing feels good because in a multitude of ways it is good for you. Drawing and art therapy have been increasingly used over the past century to heal emotional issues and help us generally feel better, and the research now supports it.
Sometimes it might just feel wonderful to express your joy creatively through drawing and art. At other times, what we are feeling inside is so confusing or painful we can’t even define it with words, or we may not want to define your feelings at all; instead we want to retreat into a shell and avoid feeling altogether. In all these situations expressing yourself with colour, shape and symbols through drawing can be a gentle and powerful release that is both revealing and healing. Seeing your feelings on the page can help make them clearer and change them.
Art therapy and its effect on the brain
When you draw a picture to express or explore your feelings, you actively engage many areas of your brain including cortical regions (symbolising, planning and decision-making), the midbrain and brainstem (sensory and kinaesthetic), the amygdala and the limbic system if dealing with traumatic memories; and if the person is asked to talk about their drawing it engages the left hemisphere of language, connecting a meaning narrative to non-verbal experiences which may be hard to verbalise. It is believed that this whole-brain integration can assist healing.
Part of this healing comes from stimulating the body’s relaxation response. In one study, salivary cortisol (the stress hormone) was measured in a group of 69 family members who were caring for their loved ones with cancer. Cortisol was measured before and after a two-hour art-making session. A significant reduction in both anxiety and cortisol was found in participants after the art therapy session. Given that drawing appears to often induce a somewhat meditative state whereby we can become so focused on our drawing we are no longer aware of our emotional or physical pain, the reduction of the stress hormone cortisol may partly explain why this is so.
Some studies also suggest that by using our whole brain while drawing, art therapy may help us to get smarter. In a study of 91 older adults in various forms of assisted living, 10 weeks of art therapy significantly increased cognitive performance.
How art therapy helps
For young children, people who find it difficult to express their feelings, or those with expressive problems, or when we are confused or overwhelmed, art therapy is a saviour. A good example of this is with a 20-year-old client Jason who presented in therapy as happy, witty and genuine. Yet in his assessments for depression he scored in the extremely severe range and expressed that he often had thoughts of suicide. It was a complete contradiction to his presentation. Clearly, I hadn’t got past his mask. So I asked him to draw a rough outline of his body and to colour the deeper feelings he experienced within the outline of his body. I took one look at the intense colours and shapes and all his hurt, rage and pain became clear to me. The block he felt around his heart was represented by a thick heavy red band drawn over his chest.
He hadn’t even realised this band was there until he drew it and realised it represented his rage at all the disappointment he had experienced, and said it felt as if it suffocated him. After the session Jason found he could breathe a little easier and knew he needed to find safe ways to process his anger and hurt.
Art psychotherapist and teacher Annette Coulter, who lives in greater Sydney, describes the way art therapy can heal as follows: “When the client expresses images visually and gazes at them, that internal holding finds some release and a more cognitive distancing starts to be achieved. For example, trauma impacts internally and is often hard to discuss, but recreating the trauma visually in the safety of what the art therapist sets up can help the client find some release for those traumatic memories and to reflect on the externalised portion of this memory in that moment.”
Reaching your goals and dreams
A powerful and positive way art therapy can help is by drawing your dreams and goals through symbol, shape and colour. You might draw a goal happening using colour and shape to describe how you feel achieving it. Examples might include getting your dream job, improving self-esteem, getting fit or finding a life partner. Another approach is to draw the events of your dream day doing all the things you hope to do in it. Or to draw a bridge. On one end of the bridge is your past and all the things you want to let go of. At the other end is your future and all the dreams and the joy you want to move towards. Then draw yourself on that bridge and how you feel moving forward. By engaging all your senses and feelings in this exercise you can make your goal clearer and more real, and feel more motivated to achieve it. Then put it somewhere where you look at it every day.
Art therapy is used extensively in hospitals and nursing homes around Australia to address grief. Mother Virginia Rea shares her experience below of her daughter Pippa, who spent six nights in the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne before she died from a brain stem tumour.
Pippa’s (and my) first exposure to art therapy was when she transitioned from brain cancer treatment to palliative care. She was asked to draw “Heaven”. Art made talking about her being in heaven far less threatening and scary for a 10-year-old. Pippa’s heaven is beautiful. It is full of life. It has stars, music, birds, flowers, water, puppy dogs and bunny rabbits. It has a big yellow castle where she will live. It sits on top of the clouds. I asked Pippa if that was the staircase to heaven. She said, “No, Mummy, that is a ladder so you can climb up and visit me.” She wrote a list of other names who could also climb the ladder to visit her, but she ran out of room on the piece of paper, so she wrote “ … and lots more people.”
I asked Pippa about the rain.
“It’s not rain, Mummy, it’s drops of water. When you feel drops of water on your face you will know I want you to come and visit me for a while.”
Virginia said at 11 years Pippa learned and taught some of her friends how to draw a portrait. Six days later she passed away. Virginia says, “At the time my daughter could not speak, she had limited hearing, she had atrophy in most of her body. Yet she learned that art therapy helped her achieve something that a lot of us take for granted — completing a task. Creating.”
48-year-old Melbournite Collette also found drawing helped heal her grief. She did an art therapy course with a friend to help her process her mother’s death. “We were given a canvas each and asked to close our eyes and think about our loved one and then choose two colours that represented what we were seeing or how we felt. [After painting] we took a break and waited for the paint to dry and then chose more colours. I have my piece on my wall at home and often look at it and see things in it that I didn’t see when I first painted it,” she said, adding that the process helped bring her closer to her mother and was deeply healing.
If the trauma is still raw and symptomatic, art therapy should be used with care and under the supervision of a trauma therapist. Given that trauma heals through processing, art therapy can be a gentle and powerful way to help. Dutch Psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk in his famous book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, describes the story of five-year-old Noah. Noah witnessed the first passenger plane slam into the World Trade Center from the windows of his first-grade classroom 450 metres away. Ten days later when Bessel visited Noah, Noah showed him a picture he drew the day after the crash. It showed the airplane slamming into the tower, fire, firefighters, people jumping from the windows and at the bottom a black circle — “a trampoline … so the next time people have to jump they will be safe,” Noah said. This was Noah’s way of helping him deal with the trauma by drawing a safe ending for the victims. Here, through art therapy, his mind was able to help him deal with the more distressing aspects of his memory.
Projection and self-awareness
Drawing promotes self-awareness, self-reflection and control over your feelings. Art is subjective. It is a direct reflection of what you hold deep within yourself at any time. In life, humans often unconsciously project their deeper insecurities and unresolved feelings onto other people. For example, if you feel highly triggered by someone or judge them harshly, you may be projecting your own judgements or your own old unprocessed feelings onto the other person through anger. This is known as projection. Art therapy and drawing makes these often-unconscious feelings more conscious. You can see more clearly what you feel and think through what shows up in your drawings. This helps you to own them, process them and reflect on them. In this way, art therapy helps people see, process and heal their projection. As Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, so aptly put it, “The healthiest form of projection is art.”
Healing your inner child
Everyone has a childlike part that, at times, may dominate your personality, especially when your inner child has unresolved issues. A powerful way to heal past childhood issues is by using art therapy to heal your inner child. For those with past trauma this is best done under the guidance of a trauma therapist. Italian psychologist Lucia Capacchione describes an art therapy process in her book Recovery of Your Inner Child. Here, you draw your inner child with your non-dominant hand (if you are right-handed, use your left hand). This is believed to help access the more emotional, intuitive part of the brain and help connect to your “inner child”. Then with your dominant hand write out some questions to the “inner child” such as, “Hi little Mary, how are you feeling today?” and “What do you need from me the adult?” Then write a response with the non-dominant hand from the “inner child”. For example, little Mary might say, “I felt scared and need a hug and some love.” Or “I feel bored and want to have some fun.” You might then use a pillow as a proxy and imagine hugging the child, affirming him or her. Or going out to do something fun. Cappachione’s book outlines this process in a way that explores many different aspects of the “inner child” and can be a powerful healing tool.
As you can see, art therapy holds a host of applications from inspiring your dreams, promoting relaxation, expressing difficult feelings and healing your deepest pain. One thing to keep in mind is that no matter how bad things get in life, it’s worth giving art therapy a try. As the famous teacher and actor Stella Adler once said, “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”